The weeping prophet and his startling promises of hope

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I am not a normal person; I fully admit what others have long known about me. While here in Spain, I love as much as the next guy the Flamenco performances, nightclubs and golf (the Majorcan Open is here this week). But yet, my beach reading in this earthly paradise consists of “Apostolicity Then and Now: An Ecumenical Church in a Postmodern World,” a biography of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez entitled “The Wool Merchant of Segovia” and a scholarly journal article with the riveting tagline “Infallibility and Specific Moral Norms: A Review Discussion.” This after two long semesters of teaching philosophy and theology since August. This is how I choose to spend my vacation. Normalcy by any objective standard continues to elude me.

However, St. Paul once said, “An obligation has been imposed on me and woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). Such sentiments, ones I apparently unworthily mirror, as radically in but not of the “normal” world, whether here or back home in Manhattan, can be traced even further back throughout Jewish history which the educated rabbinical Paul undoubtedly knew well. The prophet Jeremiah, writing around 600 B.C., claimed, “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me… the word of the Lord has brought me nothing but insult and reproach. But if I say, ‘I vow not to mention him again or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer 20).

A friend recently wrote the following in an email to me and her thoughts remind me of Jeremiah’s statement: “I need to go to grad school and study theology not because I am lacking some warehouse of facts about Aquinas’s natural law and Vatican II documents, but because theology is inscripted on my soul and etched into my bones, and the essence of my being exists within it. I cannot not do it. It is oxygen. The Holy Spirit, it sets fires you know.”

And so, like Jeremiah’s and hers and yours, my soul continues to serve as a microcosmic chessboard of the universe, with the world and God hunched over their respective pieces and checking one another’s moves at every turn.

Jeremiah is one of the most intriguing personalities in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Often referred to as the lamenting or weeping prophet, he is so named not because he is depressed or despondent in attitude per se, but because his consternation over and empathy for the people he chastises and encourages supersedes that of most other biblical figures.

John Holbert writes, “But within the huge collection of prophetic oracles that make up the 52 chapters of Jeremiah’s witness, one finds more than tears, more than frank admissions of pain, and more than convictions about the evils of Judah. One also finds startling promises of hope, hope found not merely in the possibility of human repentance, but grounded squarely in the amazing grace of God.”

Jeremiah 31 famously discusses this hopeful and developing covenantal relationship with God. There the Lord tells the prophet, “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with my people… I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.” Christians recognize this new covenant as manifested in the initiation of a radically new phase in human history inaugurated by Christ.

As my comments above indicate, the emotions and realities which Jeremiah experienced are not limited to the late Iron Age near east. As the scene recounting his vocation from the Lord which opens the book asserts, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you. I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (1:5, again cf. St. Paul, Gal 1:15). This is not to be understood historically or protagonistically, as though it is a particular attribute of Jeremiah and that other men and women are somehow less known to the Pantocrator (“creator/sustainer of all”). Rather, it is a description of the prophetic office to which every person in friendship with God is called. The weeping prophet speaks to and for all of us who seek to intensify that fire shut up in our bones by allowing it to ignite the kindling of our being through a life of spiritual and blessed abnormality.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.